The Gospel for Sunday, February 26th, 2017

The Gospel for February 26th, 2017

Matthew 6: 24-34

Reflection: Seek First the Kingdom of God

Have I mentioned before I am a worrier? Nearly every week I think. Even though mine tends toward a more generalized anxiety that can apply to any number of challenges in my life at a given moment, I think most people tend to have at least some pet anxieties that they return to frequently with undue attention. This passage mentions a few: death, food, drink, clothes, and gathering enough “into barns” (25-26). So to all of us, Jesus says, “[S]eek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (33). Good advice from the Master Teacher.

But Jesus also offers a powerful analogy that complements his point. About the worry over clothes, he advises, “Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin” (28). That image of the wild flower growing into its unique beauty without need for its own toil reminds me that complete trust in God’s providence is not its own action that replaces the mental worrying, one action for another; rather it is a quiet passivity that invites God’s grace with a simple, open heart. As Jesus points out, the result in wild flowers is nothing short of God’s perfection.  He explains, “[N]ot even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them” (29).

As Lent begins this week and we commit to giving alms as a means of growing closer to our Savior, let us not forget that sometimes it is not best accomplished by goal-oriented sacrifices. Instead, it may just mean slowing down and quietly, patiently allowing Jesus to enter our hearts and lead the way forward. I pray we may simply seek Jesus first and let Him take care of the rest.

Happy Lent!

The Gospel for Sunday, February 19th, 2017

The Gospel of February 19th, 2017

Matthew 5: 38-48

Reflection:  Repay in Kindness, Not Kind

Are all gospels created equally? I don’t know the answer to that, but I can tell you today’s gospel strikes me as hard as any that come to mind. Jesus challenges us to not only love our neighbor, but our enemies as well. He asks, “For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?” (46-47). This understanding of the commandment to love leaves no room for selfishness. For those us who struggle with perfectionism, this is difficult to accept. For it is another case in the gospel where it becomes clear we are being called to a state of holiness that is not possible to achieve without the help of the Lord. We are being called to participate in the mystical body of Christ by imitating Him.

In trying to understand the theological underpinnings of this teaching, I am going to defer to an expert this week. I recommend reviewing the two-minute video on the USCCB website by Father Greg Friedman dated February 19th. He conveys the joy in Jesus’ message much better than I can.

For my part I would like to end by sharing an experience I have written about before in this blog and connect it to this gospel. Last spring I visited the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. The experience of walking through the chronological progression of exhibits may be as close to a descent into Hell as I have undergone willingly in my life. As numbness took over in view of the scale of unmitigated evil the Nazis perpetrated in the systematic death of millions, a single thought occurred to me with unusual clarity: the only answer to this injustice is love. Civilized society cannot achieve justice by repaying the criminals, especially the ones guilty of the most horrendous crimes, in kind. When faced with an atrocity like the Holocaust any further taking of human lives seems monumentally inadequate. Instead the radical love of Jesus provides the only hope to give meaning to the lives lost. If we struggle to love and forgive our enemies in full understanding of their sins and our of sins—as Jesus did on the cross—we will finally know our Lord, who loves all His creation. His love will break the chains of sin in love so that we may experience true and eternal peace and joy in Him. And so we must keep trying.

The Gospel for Sunday, February 12th, 2017

The Gospel for February 12th, 2017: “Teaching about the Law,” “Teaching about Anger,” “Teaching about Adultery,” “Teaching about Divorce,” and “Teaching about Oaths”

Matthew 5: 17-37

Reflection:

Today’s gospel is so challenging I am tempted not to write about it. On first reading it appears Jesus expects perfect adherence to the commandments. The standard is so high it is beyond me. Since the goal of every Christian is holiness, this standard makes perfect sense. And yet I am so far from holy I fear I will never live up to this standard in my life. Take for example Jesus’ teaching on adultery (Is there a faster way to stir up controversy than to talk about sex?). After citing the original commandment forbidding adultery, he expands the understanding of the commandment to go beyond the physical act. He teaches, “[E]veryone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (28). Honestly, I may have been guilty of this every day since I was twelve years old. It requires a level of detachment, a mortification of the senses, a denial of biological instinct, I scarcely believe is possible. Additionally Jesus sets this same towering standard for anger (21-26), divorce (31-32), and oaths (33-37) in this gospel alone. The passage continues with strictures against retaliation (38-42) and hatred (43-48) in same impossible vein. If this is what Jesus expects of me, what is a sinner to do?

On second reading I find hope in the introduction. Jesus claims, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (17). I think he is speaking to the Mosaic, legalistic mindset of faith common to the first century and best represented by the Pharisees. If a believer treats the commandments as series of laws to follow, it is possible to achieve compliance without a conversion of the heart. Jesus knows it in that surrender of our hearts and wills to the Father we can finally love unconditionally. Only in this radical love can we put God and the good of others before our own selfish desires and fears. So he is addressing not the letter of the laws, but their spirit in this challenging gospel. In His life and teaching we see what this radical, perfect love looks like. Sometimes it even requires we ignore moral laws that do not fulfill the spirit of God’s love, such as when Jesus healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3: 1-6). If we are called to do more than just blindly follow the letter of the law, our salvation is returned back to Jesus from a legalism that allows room for pride and selfishness. Even if I have not committed adultery I am being selfish when I treat women as objects of pleasure, even out of public view in the fantasy of my own mind; therefore, I cannot conclude my salvation is secure because I have not committed the physical act. My heart is not fully surrendered to God’s will if I continue to use women in this selfish way. This is true of all the commandments Jesus cites in this gospel. He wants our hearts, not our compliance.

So I return to the question: What’s a sinner to do? We must remember our salvation is not in our hands, but in the hands of the Lord. Our works will not be enough alone to complete this conversion of the heart. Instead, we throw ourselves at Jesus, begging for His mercy and healing, for the miracles of perfection that only He is capable of giving. Our hope is in His grace and not in the futile attempt to comply with the commandments on our own. Prayer, worship, and confession become daily habits when we realize we need Jesus to be saved. Frequently salvation from sin is salvation from own desires. We must deny ourselves and take up the cross, but we do so only if we can be humble enough to ask Jesus, His Church, and our fellow Christians to help us carry it. And get back up when we stumble and fall. I believe Jesus came to save us all, Jew and Gentile, man and woman, Christian and non-Christian alike. I do not believe His plan is to set impossible standards that will exclude me or others from the saved. Instead, I think passages like this one remind me simply that my salvation is in His hands, and I must humble myself and continue to try to give myself over to Him and His will, even though I frequently fall short and need forgiveness and mercy. The salvation of many of us, maybe all of us, will not be accomplished as a series of tasks resulting in perfection, but rather it will be another miracle from His hands that we must simply accept beyond the limits of our reason and pride. Jesus saves, brothers and sisters; Jesus saves.

 

 

 

The Gospel for Sunday, February 5th, 2017

The Gospel for February 5th, 2017: “The Similes of Salt and Light”

Matthew 5: 13-16

Reflection: What It Means to Be Salt of the Earth

Like the Beatitudes, “The Similes of Salt and Light” appeal to my poetic side. In particular, Jesus’ comparison of Christian disciples to the salt of the earth provokes a sense of wonder and reflection that requires some thought. In contrast, I can see how light is an effective metaphor  for Christians. The notion our “light must shine before others, that they may see [our] good deeds and glorify [our] heavenly Father” (16) fits with my understanding that Christians may lead others to the faith through the witness of their lives. But why salt?

I think the answer lies in examining salt’s functions. First, salt is an antidote for bland-tasting food. It gives flavor. And so just as adding salt to a dish enlivens its taste, bringing Christian love to society animates it with life. We are a life-seeking people in a culture preoccupied with death due to our fallen natures. While that role sounds exciting in those simple terms, playing the role of salt of the earth is alarmingly difficult because it means we will be different than everyone else. There is safety in being bland and imitating those around us in attitude and behavior. When Jesus says, “But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (13), I wonder if he is addressing a reaction from his new apostles to the discomfort of their altered lives. They are no longer like the other Jews; and as a result, they are hated by some. Jesus is making it clear that while it would be easier to be less flavorful and more like others, such a decision undermines the effectiveness of their mission. Christians must be different because we love differently, with a focus on others instead of the self.

In addition to taste, salt also functions as a preservative. The love of our Creator lives within each of us alongside the tendency to sin that brings death. Therefore, a battle wages between those two forces in the world, which is old and apt analogy. As Christians, we preserve Jesus’ life-giving love in the world, allowing it to spread against the power of darkness so that hope remains for the salvation of all God’s people. This speaks to our participatory role in God’s salvation plan. As followers of Jesus the Savior, we help keep alive His mission so that it reaches all of humanity for the duration of God’s epic theo-drama.

In conclusion, our role as salt of the earth makes us different but is critical to God’s plan. By loving as Jesus loves, we bring life to a death-plagued world with the hope that all will be touched by it. This will attract others to that love and spread the faith. The challenge of that mission is that it makes us different and often hated, as the power of sin rages on to combat the life grant by our Creator. So we must resist this power, so as not to lose our flavor. We must keep fighting the good fight. When through God’s grace we are successful, we will participate in Jesus’ salvation of all humanity, including our own. This is not a plan we would come up with on our own. Our selfishness would prevent that. Yet it is within our grasp to be salt of the earth–to be followers of Jesus, to choose life over death. We simply need to trust in our Lord and follow Him as those first apostles did so long ago.